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Representative John Culberson (R–TX) at a hearing earlier this year.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

NSF offers arm’s-length defense of Trump’s 2018 request

President Donald Trump’s proposal for an 11.3% cut in spending at the National Science Foundation (NSF) may be dead on arrival in Congress. But that doesn’t mean congressional appropriators will be able to avoid any squeeze on NSF’s budget.

Representative John Culberson (R–TX), who chairs the House of Representatives spending panel that oversees NSF, opened a hearing yesterday on NSF’s 2018 budget request by saying he will work “to ensure NSF is appropriately funded” in the fiscal year that begins on 1 October. But after the hearing, Culberson declined to say whether that would require preserving its 2017 budget of $7.47 billion.

“I’ve personally ensured that NASA has received an appropriate level of funding because of the work that they do,” Culberson explained, referring to boosts this year in both the agency’s overall budget and its space science programs. “NSF is also a national treasure.” But when asked whether “appropriate” funding for NSF rules out a cut, Culberson would say only that “I’ve already given you a great answer.”

It was clear from yesterday’s hearing that neither Culberson nor the Democrats on the spending panel are fans of Trump’s budget request for the agency. And NSF Director France Córdova did what she could to distance herself from the results of an exercise in which NSF officials were forced to propose $820 million in cuts from current spending.

“That wasn’t your idea, was it?” Representative Matt Cartwright (D–PA) asked Córdova, putting her in an awkward situation. “NSF is an executive branch agency, and this is the president’s budget,” replied Córdova, a Senate-confirmed appointee of former President Barack Obama who is halfway through a 6-year term.

After the hearing, Córdova described how NSF followed White House orders to slice the agency’s budget to levels last seen a decade ago in current dollars—and 15 years ago if inflation is factored in. The goal, she said, was to preserve “core” research programs while also throttling back on programs that had expanded rapidly in recent years.

“There isn’t another agency that just allows researchers to submit their own curiosity-driven research ideas,” she explained. “We call that the core, and to me it means principal investigator–driven research. And we wanted to be sure that there was still an agency on the planet that would continue to fund curiosity-driven, fundamental research.”

“But we also looked at the growth of everything over the last decade, by major program,” she added. “And we saw that some programs had experienced really, really big growth,” ticking off NSF’s graduate research fellowships, the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), and the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service. “So we took those off the table.”

Under the 2018 request, the next class of graduate fellows would be cut in half, from 2000 to 1000. EPSCoR, a long-running program begun by Congress that helps states that receive relatively few NSF research grants, was trimmed by $60 million, or 37%, and the new CyberCorps program would drop by 20%, or $10 million.

That pruning reduced the overall size of the cut needed to around 9%, she said. Each of the agency’s research directorates were then told to find ways to cut that amount from their budgets. “We didn’t want to just spread it like peanut butter across every program,” she explained. The cuts to the three major activities were done in consultation with Trump budget officials, she added.

In her testimony, Córdova insisted that “we still have a lot of money” to do the cutting-edge research that has been a hallmark of the agency since it was created in 1950. But she also signaled her hope that Congress would come to the rescue. “The budget presents us with challenges,” she acknowledged, “but it is not final until Congress weighs in. And scientists are anxiously waiting to see how it all unfolds.”

Correction, 6/8/17 12:59 p.m.: The story was revised to correct the size of the budget cut proposed for NSF's EPSCoR program.